Home Run in Oslo

There is not another politician in America who could have delivered the speech given by President Barack Obama this morning when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. It was an intellectual tour de force and the force came from his own intellect not from that of his speechwriters. This was his speech, and it will indelibly mark his presidency. He set out the worldview that will govern him, and through him the nation, and, through the nation, the global community.

Obama gave several nods to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who also received the Nobel Peace Prize. Indeed, as the chairman of the Nobel Committee acknowledged, the award to Obama was, in a sense, the culmination of the downpayment the Nobel Committee made when it gave the Nobel to Dr. King, still struggling for equal rights for black Americans. Sometimes, when American politicians invoke Dr. King, the invocation rings hollow, usually because the speaker has only had to overcome the prejudices of a privileged life. Obama did not enjoy a privileged upbringing, except that he was born in an America that had wrestled with and struggled for and come to embody – not fully but significantly – Dr. King’s dream. Obama is the only American who could stand today where King stood.

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The President gave a nod to King but he also gave a caution and brought his essentially Niebuhrian view into clear focus. Even while he spoke of King, he also said, "For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason." Nor did the President flinch from the moral ambiguity implied by the necessity of force. One of his best lines was about avoiding the "purity of indignation" and was spot-on in defending his break from the policies of his predecessor regarding the use of torture, when he said "We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard."

Finally, while the President did not invoke St. Augustine by name he did so by calling explicit attention to just war theory. In fact, the entire speech can be seen in part as a defense of just war theory and an exploration of the ways it can be deployed in the modern era, and how the insights of just war theory, especially its insistence on resorting to force only as a last resort, can and should focus our attention on peaceful methods of first resort. The President defended his commitment to diplomacy but he was equally clear that there must be consequences to bad behavior by bad actors on the world stage. There is not a naïve bone in Obama’s body.

It will be curious to see how the President’s political opposition will try and make hay with this speech. I suspect that opposition will tell us more about them than about him. What we learned about President Obama this morning is that the intellectual rigor we admired during the campaign is still there, that despite the temptation of power to lay aside the search for intellectual consistency, this is a man who wishes to understand what he called the "moral imagination" of himself and his times. It was a magnificent speech and all Americans should be proud to have a President capable of delivering it.

 

 

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Beth Cioffoletti
8 years ago
Amen.
I haven't seen anything like it since MLK.  Barack Obama awakens the future in us.
Helena Loflin
8 years ago
I am so proud of our president.  It is such a pleasure for me and a blessing for our country that President Barack Hussein Obama is both intelligent and intellectual.  Today, he received his first Nobel Prize.
8 years ago
I haven't read or seen his speech yet but the president' political opposition (including me) have learned not to judge the man by his words.
John Stehn
8 years ago
President Obama employs moral absolutes when it suits him, and moral relativism when it suits him as well.  A lot can be said about his moral reasoning, but ''tour de force'' and ''''rigor'' are not words that come to mind.  Inconsistent, confused, and crass do come to mind.  I think it rather absurd for a Roman Catholic blog site, associated with a Jesuit magazine, to be employing such accolades for this man.  No one says he is not well educated (for a lawyer), but wisdom and honesty are far greater attributes for a good leader than intelligence.
Consider his March speech regarding the lifting of the ban of Federal funds for embryonic stem cell research.  In the light of Catholic moral teaching, he was rubbing two sticks together intellectually.  A little utilitarianism here, a little pragmatism there, and a little sentimentalism for good measure on top.  The result?  Scientists, yes scientists (no seriously, stop laughing)…the moral giants that brought us eugenics, the Tuskegee experiments, forced sterilizations in Puerto Rico, etc., are now the guardians of morality when it comes to human experimentation.  Consider also, his crass moral relativism during the infamous Notre Dame speech.  Was he as crass when he was speaking of the morally intolerable sins of slavery, during his Africa trip?  In that case, he reached for a delivered moral absolutes, as befit his agenda.
It’s one thing for his cheerleaders at Time and the Nation to gush over his unctuous moral reasoning, but such burbling should find no place in a Catholic magazine.  A more critical review in the light of perennial Church teaching, which dwarfs his confused (though eloquently delivered) moral reasoning, would be of greater service.
Gabriel Marcella
8 years ago
John,
Well written and reasoned! Unfortunately, it seems at times that the MSW blog is a conduit for the White House Press office. Cheerleader is not a role that America should play. It should be a precious intellectual space for rigorous non-partisan analysis of the moral-ethical issues of our day within a Catholic perspective. Moreover, what about consistency? Recall when MSW chastised Obama for the moral realitivism of the Notre Dame speech. Such relativism has not gone away.

There is another reason that unrestrained adulation has no place in this publication. It does not help the president and our democracy if the media does not hold our leaders accountable through honest critical analysis of what they say and do, especially when words don't match deeds, and when words are pleasing philosophical fluff.


Jeff Bagnell
8 years ago
I thought it was a typically mediocre, gassy speech by him.   The number of "I"s in the speech was breathtaking.  He needs someone to edit the constant references to himself out of his speeches if he is ever to sound like a mature leader.
Stephen SCHEWE
8 years ago

Could I respectfully suggest to the critics that they read (or listen to) the speech?

President Obama used the award ceremony today to speak to a variety of audiences:  Europeans, many of whom "have a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter what the cause;" Muslims, many of whom continue to promote jihad as a legitimate religious concept; the Iranians and the North Koreans, who are bent on proliferating nuclear weapons; and people of good will everywhere who struggle with how to reconcile the imperatives of human rights and human development with questions of war and peace.  A Nobel Lecture's audience is not primarily American (or Catholic for that matter), and the speeches are more appropriately philosophical than tactical.  But anyone who advocates nuclear non-proliferation as the "centerpiece of my foreign policy," supports just war theory, recommits the United States to humane tratment of prisoners, links justice in economic development and among poor nations to the cause of peace, and underpins his speech with foundations of "the law of love" and "the rights and dignity of every individual" touches on multiple points of the Catechism in ways that Catholics can appreciate.

Obama sent respectful, clear messages to all the audiences listed above with ears to hear, and he promised consequence for those who don't hear.  I predict that we will see actions in the rest of the President's term that flow from the agenda he sketched today.  Eventually, I believe this speech will stand with FDR's first inaugural; as FDR recognized that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," Obama is asking us all to "reach for the world that ought to be - that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls."

Let's hope eventually that the President's critics learn to distinguish between nuance and relativism.  There was a lot of the former heard today in Oslo, and very little of the latter.

Patrick Murtha
8 years ago
Mr. Winters,

It seems odd to me that the past presidents and the current one have often concerned themselves with global politics and have forgotten the people at home. Whatever happened to "doctor heal thyself"?

I wonder that America should follow the path of Notre Dame and preach the morality of the president's views when opposing such immoral practices as abortion, which is nothing short of massacring the future citizens of America, is not a priority on his agenda. Our country is becoming a human slaughter-house. We only excuse our consciences by calling the being an embryo, a cell, and not a human within an immortal and a future, which is forever destroyed. If this kind of man receives the Nobel Peace Prize, there is nothing noble or peaceful about it.

It is true that he might apply St. Augustine's principles of a just war. Is he honestly following the criteria laid down by St. Augustine and supported by St. Thomas Aquinas? I don't know. That is a question that the bishops and theologians can answer better than I.

Equally, I find it odd, to put him within the context of current politics, that our president should talk of liberty when now before the Senate is his bill that will force all Americans, whether they want it or not, to buy health insurance and fine them if health insurance is not purchased. (Has he gone into the health insurance business?) They do that and would never dream of making a bill that required everyone to go to church because that would attack our liberties. And yet, if we read the words of George Washington, he would contend that the latter would be better for our country for he stated that morality and religion are two indispensible hinges on which the tranquility of the nation will depend.

Yes, I hand it to him. He is a great speaker and such great philosophers as Aristotle and Plato have warned about such sophistry. Fr. Charles Coppens, S.J., once wrote a book about oratory and said that one of the most important characteristics of a good orator are the virtues of humility and honesty and sound moral judgement, which he labeled as an absolute essential to a speaker. It only causes me to wonder at the wisdom of the world and America.
8 years ago
"A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies."
 
Did a violent movement bring down the much more ruthless movement that Stalin led in the U.S.S.R.?
 
Mr. Winters love for Obama's progress war has obviously made him forget how many divisions the pope has...
 
Love and truth conquer, not Obama's war against evil.
Helena Loflin
8 years ago
The more statesman-like our president is, the smaller-minded his critics become. 
The entertainment value...priceless.

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